Tru Trifle

Good acting, sets and costumes can't redeem a shallow script

Let's say you've gone to a play called Hamlet at Home. As the curtain comes up, you immediately notice the wonderful set, so persuasively like Elsinore Castle, and the young man sitting on the edge of a throne, so convincingly Prince Hamlet. This is going to be fascinating, you tell yourself. So much verisimilitude is already a good sign. Then Hamlet starts to speak. There's not much depth to what he says — a few stray comments about the weather, a memory of a nice evening he had with Ophelia, a mildly witty cut directed against King Claudius. Well, you tell yourself, he's just warming up; soon the significance will arrive. But a half-hour later, Hamlet's still talking superficial trivia. Horatio, he says, is a good friend in a pinch. It's mostly fun being a prince, but the snowfalls in Denmark are ridiculous. And Queen Gertrude, who does she think she's fooling with that tummy tuck?!By this time you're pretty exasperated. Certainly there's more to Hamlet than these trifling comments, certainly anyone who's lived at Elsinore and matriculated at Wittenberg has something to tell us about life, royalty, society. And what a name- dropper Hamlet is. He makes a point of mentioning celebrities without telling us anything very meaningful about any of them. Finally, the play ends, and you walk to your car, thinking, "Maybe that's really what Hamlet was like." In which case, someone should have known better than to dramatize him. Wonder what's on TV?

All right, I'm not talking about Hamlet; I'm trying to say that no matter how important a personage, it's up to the playwright to make our encounter with him significant. When the character is a radically indecisive Danish prince, the rules are just the same as when the character is a modern novelist who likes to hobnob with the super-rich. It's not Hamlet but Shakespeare who makes that particular play matter; it's not Danton but Büchner, not Becket but Anouilh, not Ethel Rosenberg but Tony Kushner ...

And it's not Truman Capote but Jay Presson Allen who makes Tru such a forgettable, trivial evening of theater. Allen's a multitalented writer with many awards and honors to prove it, but all he really does in this outing is convince us that we're in the presence of Mr. Capote. After that feat is accomplished — it only takes a few minutes — the experience rapidly becomes insignificant. Yes, Tom Frye turns in a truly brilliant impersonation of the wealth-obsessed writer, but what's the use, with what end in view? Here's Capote opining that he doesn't like poinsettias. Here's Capote complaining that some of his rich friends feel he's betrayed them. Here's Capote announcing that he's going to have drinks with Ava Gardner. Here's Capote boasting that he can ice-skate and ski. So what? Why should we care?

Which is not to suggest that there aren't a few moments when this one-man show threatens to have some greater meaning. For example, when Capote punches a hole through a portrait of his happy, younger self: That's about aging, about the peculiarly severe trial that aging can be to a very vain person. But the subject isn't sustained in the rest of the script. Or there's Capote's memory of being abandoned by his mother; now there's a live subject. But he doesn't take it very far, and actually tells us triumphantly that his mom was quite wealthy — lived on Park Avenue — when she committed suicide. OK, maybe he has something memorable to say about his homosexuality. No, as it turns out, only some boasts about how magnetic he once was, and how he wished fervently to be a girl. In fact, it's not only the important themes that go unexamined here, it's just about every theme that comes up in this rambling, nonadditive experience. Only one idea is returned to again and again: Capote's concern at being boycotted by the rich "friends" whom he wrote about in his novel-in-progress, Answered Prayers. Now, I'll agree that this is a problem, especially to a guy who defines himself by the affluent company he keeps. But as for tragic stature: not. Not close. Not in the vicinity.

I'll say it again: Frye is wonderfully convincing as Capote, micromanaging the part with real panache, consummate skill. Dan Williams' set of a penthouse apartment couldn't be better. There's a divan and a sofa, bookshelves overflowing with books, and a Christmas tree, all backed by an oversize window displaying a nighttime skyline of New York. Sally Wasson's costumes, from Capote's sweater and khaki pants in Act One to his sky-blue kimono in Act Two, are always just right, as is Otts Munderloh's sound design featuring Louis Armstrong, the Supremes and Perry Como. Writer Allen is also the director, and he seems to know everything about the appearance and carriage of Truman Capote.

But what's the use? Why put us in Capote's presence for an hour-and-a-half? Certainly his life touched on fundamental American themes like the obsession with celebrity, with wealth, with worldly success. Surely a play about Capote could be an illuminating experience.

Not this play. This one's all about surfaces.

And even surface-besotted Truman Capote deserves better.

Gogh Van, Gogh More interesting than Tru is Leonard Nimoy's (that's right) Vincent, currently playing at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Actor F. Reed Brown plays Theo Van Gogh, indignantly remembering brother Vincent's sad life soon after his death, and quoting liberally from his letters. The point of the play is mostly biography, but the story's fascinating, and bears retelling. One could wish that Brown/Theo weren't always so overwrought, but hey, he watched a great talent go unrecognized and turn to madness. Kudos to Scenic Artist Susie McIlwain for dividing the famous painting "Wheat Field with Ravens" into four panels and using it as a backdrop. And accolades to TBPAC for continuing to put important work in the Shimberg Playhouse.

Contact performing arts critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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